Politics & Policy

Obama’s Bookshelf

Recommendations for the president.

Our president has been spotted carrying an assortment of books, from FDR biographies to the collected poems of David Walcott. We asked some friends of NRO: What books would you recommend the president get on his nightstand and why? What might have a positive effect on him and history?

HADLEY ARKES

Obama has clearly shown, in several ways, that he doesn’t have the remotest understanding of Lincoln’s teachings, whether regarding Lincoln’s moral understanding of natural right, his view of the Constitution, or the precise sense of prudence that informed his statecraft. But if the current president is genuinely interested in Lincoln, he should read the two books that, more than anything else, helped us to understand Lincoln in his highest pitch by understanding the substance of his thought. And those two books, of course, are Harry Jaffa’s classic, Crisis of the House Divided (now marking its 50th anniversary), and its sequel, A New Birth of Freedom.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College.

RICK BROOKHISER

Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems is a good choice. I would add A Bend in the River, by Walcott’s fellow West Indian V. S. Naipaul.

I will be immodest and suggest Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington.

A great book on politics is Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, by William L. Riordan, but I’m sure President Obama knows it already.


– Rick Brookhiser is a senior editor of NR.

PETE HEGSETH

For the best recommendation, I went to my father (Brian), the most well-read person I know. He recommended Truman, by David McCullough, for a true-to-life look at what grassroots middle America has always been about (hint, hint). It also deals extensively with being a war president and the considerations that brings (including victory).

For my money, I would still recommend David Bellavia’s House to House: An Epic Memoir of War. If the president wants to truly understand the nature of the enemy we face — from drugged-up foreign fighters in Iraq to religious zealots in Afghanistan and Pakistan — there is no better in-your-face read then David’s book. Its pages just might fortify the president to properly resource and orient the continuing fights in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Capt. Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is chairman of Vets for Freedom.

MARTIN KRAMER

As Obama is reputed to like a challenge, I would send him a copy of Pascal Bruckner’s The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt (1983 in French, 1986 in English), which I’m sure he’s never read. Touched as he is by a relativistic streak of Third Worldism (see his Cairo speech), he would benefit greatly by reading this far-reaching exposé of just what it is: a narcissistic indulgence in “infinite repentance” by those in the West who “get a childish pleasure from being the source of all horror in the world.” Bruckner began as one of France’s nouveaux philosophes, and they weren’t exactly neocons, so Obama would be safe there. Still, would he run the risk of being photographed with a book by a French intellectual in hand? And then there’s that title . . . 

– Martin Kramer is Olin Institute senior fellow at Harvard and Adelson Institute senior fellow at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem.

HERBERT LONDON

Here are some recent publications I would recommend: Walid Phares, The Confrontation; Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals; Michael Barone, Our First Revolution; Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe; Herbert London, America’s Secular Challenge.

– Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute.

WILLIAM MCGURN

The Ultimate Resource, by Julian Simon. Why human beings — not government, not planners, not gold — are the ultimate resource when given the freedom to create and innovate and use their God-given talents.

Redeemer President, by Alan Guelzo. A better understanding of Abraham Lincoln — and the forces that went into, and in some ways still support, the Republican party.

The Fatal Conceit, by F. A. Hayek. The title says it all.


– William McGurn, formerly the chief speechwriter for Pres. George W. Bush, is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.

JOHN J. MILLER

Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. This classic has taught simple truths in clear prose since 1946. Ideal for college students, as well as for public officials who have a lot to unlearn.

— John J. Miller is NR’s national correspondent. His personal website is Hey Miller.

JOHN J. PITNEY, JR.

I’d recommend two by Friedrich Hayek. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek cautioned against the delegation of authority that is inevitable in something like Obamacare. If the law empowers officials to direct important areas of economic life, he said, “It must give them powers to make and enforce decisions in circumstances which cannot be foreseen and on principles which cannot be stated in generic form. The consequence is that, as planning extends, the delegation of legislative powers to divers Boards and Authorities becomes increasingly common.” (See section 123 of the amended HR 3200, on the “Health Benefits Advisory Committee.”) In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek wrote of many things, including schemes for national health insurance: “One of the strongest arguments against them is, indeed, that their introduction is the kind of politically irrevocable measure that will have to be continued, whether it proves a mistake or not.”


– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

PETER ROBINSON

Our chief executive could use some good prose, a sense of history, and — I don’t deny the impish impulse here, but at the same time I really and truly believe it would do the man a world of good — a dose of political incorrectness. He can find all three in one place: a series of lectures by John Henry Newman entitled The Turks in Their Relation to Europe.

Newman delivered the lectures in 1853, during the Crimean War, the conflict that pitted the Turks against the Russians. The lectures proved intensely controversial — and, I would argue, courageous; while Britain, attempting to nab portions of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, had allied itself with the Turks, Newman demonstrated considerable sympathy for the Russians.

The lectures remain wonderfully relevant. Newman places the Ottomans in context, showing how they emerged from the long, long history of the Asian steppe. We may disagree, here and there, with Newman’s judgments. But what he saw was that Western civilization was being threatened in some absolutely basic way. As it is, again, today.

“It is difficult to understand,” Newman said, “how a reader of history can side with the Spanish people in past centuries in their struggle with the Moors, without wishing Godspeed, in mere consistency, to any Christian Power, which aims at delivering the East of Europe from the Turkish yoke.”

— Peter Robinson is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life.

NINA ROSENWALD

Okay, we could start with: From Time Immemorial, by Joan Peters; Hatred’s Kingdom, by Dore Gold; The Rise of Nuclear Iran, by Dore Gold; Preemption, by Alan Dershowitz; and any book with something pro-Israel in the title — by anybody (Chaim Herzog, Abba Eban, Ze’ev Jabotinsky).


– Nina Rosenwald is chairman of the board of the Middle East Media and Research Institute and vice president of the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs.

JOSEPH MORRISON SKELLY

I would encourage Barack Obama to get his hands as soon as possible on a copy of Angelo Codevilla’s bracing new book, Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft. Its no-nonsense approach to American foreign and security policy will sweep away the muddled thinking found in the work of Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria that is currently clouding the president’s mind. Codevilla administers a sharp dose of intellectual sandblasting to the progressive tradition that has infected large swaths of the American foreign-policy establishment since the era of Woodrow Wilson. He outlines a commonsense approach to American military affairs rooted not in the assumptions of the elite Washington Beltway crowd but in the timeless wisdom of the American people, who know how to fight and win wars. “There are two grades in war,” he reminds us, “A and F.”

Reading this book may yet earn Obama a passing grade in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the very least, the American people can read it in order to prepare for the time when an American president asks us to fight not for some nebulous political accommodation, but for victory.

– Joseph Morrison Skelly, an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is the editor of the forthcoming volume Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad: Defenders, Detractors, and Definitions.

TERRY TEACHOUT

Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.

Barack Obama partakes of the postmodern political sensibility, and his Ivy League education and upper-middle-class experience have had the effect of cutting him off from Red America, about which he seems to know very little. For this reason, I think he’d profit from reading The Big Sort, a well-informed, strikingly non-partisan analysis of the red-blue ideological split that shows how Americans have segregated themselves into “communities of sameness . . . whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible.” One of the effects of this self-segregation, Bishop argues, is that Democrats and Republicans who no longer live together are more likely to demonize one another out of sheer ignorance. If President Obama really wants to reach across the great cultural divide, The Big Sort might give him some clues about how to do so — and help him to understand how far he’ll have to reach.


– Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary.

ABIGAIL THERNSTROM

America’s Three Regimes, by Morton Keller; Pride, Prejudice, and Politics: Roosevelt versus Recovery, 1933-1938, by Gary Dean Best; The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright; Six Days of War, by Michael B. Oren; Masters and Commanders: How Churchill, Roosevelt, Alanbrooke and Marshall Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, by Andrew Roberts; and Lessons from My Uncle James, by Ward Connerly.

– Abigail Thernstrom, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is the author of Voting Rights — and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections and the co-author with Stephan Thernstrom of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible.

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